Domino Sugar’s Enduring Lesson of Local History

The Domino refinery in 2008 (courtesy of Doug Letterman/Flickr)

The philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I do not know if Santayana ever visited our area, but Santayana’s words relate to North Brooklyn’s struggle to recall its unique history and preserve the landmarks that help us remember our area’s fascinating past.


Last Saturday, I led about 75 hard souls who braved the rain on a walking tour of the Domino Refinery, which was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, processing at its height one-eighth of all the sugar refined on the planet! Today, the great refinery is being transformed into a mixed-use development.

Although the façade of the Domino building is landmarked and must be preserved, the building’s interior is being removed and it will become luxury condominiums and offices. Already huge metal stanchions have been attached to the exterior wall to facilitate gutting the historic refinery. Our history is being destroyed before our very eyes.

Inside the refinery (courtesy of Jason Eppink/Flickr)

Some cynics might well ask,” Who cares?” The Domino refinery was the seat not only of a corporate empire, The Sugar Trust, but also the setting for massive crimes.

No one really knows how many workers died or were maimed inside the plant because the Havemeyer brothers who ran the plant allowed no outside visitors into the refinery, fearing that people would expose the horrors that went on inside.

Men dropped dead because of the infernal heat and humidity by the score, while others were maimed without being paid a penny in compensation. The Havemeyers made tens of millions of dollars while barely paying the thousands of people who worked there a living wage, but that was not all.

For years, Henry Havemeyer defrauded the government of millions of dollars in tariff revenue and cheated the city of Brooklyn out of huge sums, by routing his water intake around the city’s meters. The Havemeyers, though, were not the only abusive corporation in the area.

Havemeyer modeled his sugar cartel on Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which refined the majority of the massive amounts of its oil in and around Newtown Creek. Even the most casual student of local history knows the story about how oil refining devastated the local ecology and has probably caused untold numbers of local cancer cases.

The great lesson of local history during the Gilded Age is that corporations need to be regulated or society and the environment will face dire consequences.

However, our society today suffers from collective historical amnesia. Today, Amazon and many other hugely profitable corporations pay no tax at all, while paying their workers low wages. Corporations continue to gouge our environment and spread cancer. Large corporate stores are replacing family businesses all over North Brooklyn, driving out local merchants and driving up prices. Did I even mention real estate development?

It is too late to save the Domino Refinery’s interior, but we should at least tell the story of what happened inside the Domino plant truthfully while explaining how it was a piece in a larger story of corporate greed and theft. Our local history stands as a lesson to those who encourage us to return to the laissez faire capitalism of the Gilded Age. Let us hope that we are not doomed to repeat the abuses this area once experienced because of our historical amnesia.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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